To this can be added the upheaval in Yemen. Iran supports Shia rebels in that country, and can be expected to provide support for a new government if the current regime falls. Then there’s Bahrain. With its large Shia population, and given that it is headquarters for the U.S. 5th Fleet, the overthrow of the island emirate would transform the power balance in the Gulf. Already reports indicate that a Facebook group has been formed to call for protests in Qatar for March 16. Among the demands are the closing of a U.S. base and the Emir’s resignation. While there are calls for breaking ties to both Israel and Iran, events in Egypt are showing that Islamist forces—which would be backed by Iran here—can certainly gain stature, reversing any anti-Iranian positions.
The upheaval in Kuwait together with the probability of unrest in Saudi Arabia, would also benefit Iran, since there are large Shia populations in these Gulf States.
These developments would see Iran, by proxy, exercising control over several vital areas. The Red Sea could in effect be shut off to the West. The impunity with which Iranian ships passed through Suez means that even a pro-Western Egypt would be unlikely to return to Mubarak’s policy of blocking such transits. One hostile to the West could see the Canal closed off, with severe repercussions given that 20 percent of the world’s oil and 40 percent of its seaborne trade pass through it. A pro-Iranian Yemen could also jeopardize the Strait of Bab el-Mandeb, gateway to the Indian Ocean. Worse, Shia uprisings in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia, would directly threaten the key source of the global oil supply. Given the spike in prices that occurred after the upheaval in Libya, such a development would be catastrophic for the world economy. There is evidence that some of this is occurring. On February 5, Hamas saboteurs blew up Egypt’s main natural gas line to Israel and Jordan, causing massive increases to these countries’ energy bills. A February 26 attack on Iraq’s Baiji oil refinery, its largest, by al Qaeda cells controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, caused severe damage, which could see it closed for weeks. All this helps increase world prices and, more importantly, add to instability in the region.
Such a chain of events could see Iran in a much stronger position than it was just a month ago. Given the messianic views of the current leadership, and its perception that the balance of power is shifting in their favor, a confrontation with the West becomes ever more likely.
(In Part 2, Iran’s military capabilities, together with its ties to proxies outside the Middle East, are examined.)
David Walsh has a Ph.D from the London School of Economics and is the author of book, The Military Balance in the Cold War: US Perceptions and Policy, 1976-85.
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